27 Ways to Teach Your Kid's Favorite Subjects at Home
When I told my 6-year-old I was writing about kids who love to learn, she said, “Well, that ain’t me!” In my defense, it was Week 8 of quarantine, and she was one Google Meet over the line. Here’s the thing, though: Kids are naturally curious. “When we try to ‘teach,’ kids feel lectured, but when children discover for themselves, they learn,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.
It’s a matter of finding creative ways to foster what your kids love—and out-of-the-box tactics to hold their interest. As the school year progresses, you may experience distance-learning fatigue or homework pushback, or you just want to get your 3-year-old pumped about colors and shapes. Whatever stage you’re in, getting kids excited about this stuff is totally doable. And, well, probably a good idea as we head into another unpredictable year.
Science Activities to Do at Home
Start a chemical reaction.
One of the best things about science is making things explode, right? A simple experiment kids go bananas for: Drop an unwrapped roll of Mentos candy into a 1- or 2-liter room-temperature bottle of a carbonated drink, like soda or seltzer. Carbon dioxide bubbles will form on the surface of the candy (because science) and, when the gas is released, the beverage will jet out of the bottle—see this in action in the photo. (And word of advice: Do this one outside!)
Get a temporary pet.
Order caterpillars at insectlore.com to see the life cycle up close and personal. Susan Wenze, Ph.D., a college professor and mom of two in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, bought them at the start of quarantine. “Once they went into their chrysalises, we set them up in the tent and watched them hatch into butterflies,” she says. After a week, be sure to set the butterflies free.
Spark an interest in space.
Use facts about the size, color, and position of planets to craft a solar-system model, suggests astronaut Mike Massimino, author of Spaceman: The True Story of a Young Boy’s Journey to Becoming an Astronaut. Kids can use clay to create the planets, sun, and moon. Poke a toothpick through each one, and attach with string. Get younger siblings in on things by making a spacecraft out of household supplies, such as cardboard paper-towel rolls and aluminum foil.
Reading Activities to Do at Home
Watch the movie, then read the book.
“Some kids just like to know more about the story line. The visuals can help build out the characters and the setting for them,” says Christina Droskoski, a reading teacher and mom of three in Centerport, New York. Charlotte’s Web, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach are all great movie-before-book options.
Don’t ruin bedtime reads.
Unless your child wants to, avoid reading teacher-assigned books at bedtime. You want to be sure even as they’re learning to read that they’re not unlearning to love books.
Read in short spurts.
Kids’ attention span is typically their age in minutes, so set a timer that corresponds. “It’s easier for children to focus on the challenging stuff when they know it won’t be long,” says Jessica Jones, a kindergarten teacher in Dallas. Take a short break and start again.
Math Activities to Do at Home
Count loose change.
Line cupcake tins with paper baking cups, write an amount on the bottom of each (like 50 cents, 15 cents, 27 cents), and give your child a jar of loose coins. “They figure out how much goes in each one and put in the corresponding amount,” says Meredith Shanley, a mom of two from Baltimore, whose boys love this game. “You can time them, change the amounts, and make it a race for two kids.”
Play the stock market.
Download Stockpile, an app that follows the market and is super user-friendly for kids. “My 7 year-old son checks it multiple times a day and has bought and sold several times,” says Lizette Williams, of Chicago, who started him off with $5. “His favorite stocks are Amazon and Netflix.” (Smart kid.)
Tap into online quizzes.
On quizlet.com, kids can compete against each other to show off what they know. Melissa Gonzalez, a mom of three in Ormond Beach, Florida, was struggling to get her sixth-grade son to do his math assignments until he started playing against classmates and anyone else willing to challenge him.
Put a twist on a classic game.
Remember the card game War? Try this variation: Each player throws down two cards and adds them (or subtracts, or multiplies) and then the bigger sum takes all. “My students love this game,” says Erin Zackey, an elementary teacher in Seattle. “Check out teacherspayteachers.com and zenomath.org for a bunch of games you can make and buy, but all you really need is a deck of cards.”
- RELATED: The 8 Best Math Apps for Kids
Social Studies Activities to Do at Home
Create a LEGOtown.
Get their mental wheels turning with questions about what makes a city or town and how people there interact. Farrell Turner, a mom of four in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, started doing this while she makes dinner. “We write down different shops and services on pieces of paper and have the kids pull one out of a hat,” she says. “They each get an hour to make what they picked, and at the end of the week they have a little town to show off and discuss.”
Show them the world.
Ask your child, “Where do we live?” then open up Google Maps and search for your house. “Mapping can be overwhelming for kids, but once you zoom in to your home, you’ve got them hooked,” says first-grade teacher Juliann Beckmann, in Greenlawn, New York. “Then explore the area around them—zoom out until you see the country, the continent, and the whole planet, and they can begin to understand the concepts a little better.”
Get them pumped about history.
There are so many cool people in history; becoming an expert on a person who did something they’re interested in goes a long way for engagement. Book series like Pocket Bios and Who Was? present the information in ways that engage elementary-school students.
Select a cause.
Give your kid the responsibility of choosing a charity that the family will support. “We’re trying to open our 7-year-old’s eyes to the needs of others,” says Caroline Nordstrom, a mom of two in Lincoln, Massachusetts. “We told him we’re giving him some money and that we’ll help him research organizations he’d like to help.”
Writing Activities to Do at Home
Transcribe their words.
The physical part of writing can be very hard for young kids—and things that are hard become frustrating. “The muscles in their hands aren’t always ready to hold a pencil easily and with the right amount of pressure,” says Anne Brower, who ran a preschool for 35 years. “But you still want them to learn to get their feelings down on paper.” So let them dictate their ideas and write some or all of it.
Move schoolwork outside.
Letting kids do their assignments in unconventional places can make them less of a chore. Julie Liubicic, a mom of two in Los Angeles, set up different “learning stations” all over her property. “We write outside,” says Liubicic. “My daughter is happy and relaxed, and it’s easier to be creative when you’re in a creative space.”
Have them design a menu and place cards for playing “restaurant”—or “Keep Out” signs for fort building. “Learning through play is a huge part of a child’s development and helps them retain much more information,” says Lauren Gallagher, Ph.D., an elementary-school psychologist in Centerpoint, New York.
Order them stationery.
When kids have a fun stash of paper, they’re more excited to write—and letters are a great way to teach connection and penmanship. “My daughter exchanges letters with a friend who moved away,” says Stephanie Higgins, a mom of two in New Market, Maryland.
Foreign Language Activities to Do at Home
Watch Peppa Pig in Spanish.
If your kids ask for one more show, say yes, but change the language. “They feel like they’re getting a treat, but they’re really learning,” says Meghan Cevey, a mom of three in Huntington, New York, whose husband is from Argentina. “Because they already know the characters and premise of their show, it’s easier to follow.”
Celebrate the holidays and traditions (especially ones with cake).
Rather than drilling vocab with them, broaden the experience by incorporating culture. When Sarah Geiger was helping her three kids learn French, her husband’s native language, the Scarsdale, New York, mom never missed an opportunity to cook French food. “The kids loved eating galette des rois,” a kind of puff pastry round, “for The Feast of the Three Kings Day—it has a toy hidden inside,” she says.
Create cartoons—in another language.
French teacher Kerri Simeone has her students draw comic strips, and instead of English in the speech bubbles, they use French, incorporating vocab. During distance learning, she had her older students create memes in French and then all vote on the funniest ones.
Physical Education Activities to Do at Home
Take the pressure off at home.
Sometimes P.E. class can make kids self-conscious, especially when they’re learning a new sport or activity. “Break it down into small skills, and help them work at those until they feel successful,” says Ethan Zohn, a former professional soccer player and cofounder of the global nonprofit Grassroot Soccer. For soccer, have them hop on one foot, and then balance on one leg with the other foot on the ball. And use humor: When their foot touches the ground, joke that an alligator is going to eat it! “The most powerful thing to teach kids about sports is that you might lose, but you can come back out the next day and win,” says Zohn.
Start with sports basics and geek out from there.
Teach them how to be a fan—from the rules to the marquee players, the scoring, and the uniforms. “Sports are 100 percent more enjoyable if you know what you’re watching, and the same goes for playing,” says Sarah Spain, an ESPN reporter.
Segue from their screens.
Let them play FIFA soccer on their gaming system, then go mimic it outside. Or watch Avengers, then do a live-action workout with somersaults and sword fights.
Arts and Theater Activities to Do at Home
Share your old tunes.
Burlington, Vermont, English teacher Peter McConville turns on a record player (Spotify works too!) and gives his boys a journal for notes or drawings. “From the first day they listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland, they were hooked,” he says. They’ve also sampled Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, and Aretha Franklin.
Make it feel like a real show.
Actor Don Darryl Rivera put lights at the landing of his stairs for his 4-year-old to show off her moves. “Since it’s better to perform to a crowd, we make our own by putting dolls, cut-up pictures of friends, or photos from magazines taped to ice-pop sticks into an empty egg carton,” says Rivera, who plays Iago in Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway.
Tap into their abstract artist.
Take cushions off the couch and announce that they’re hamburger buns. Challenge kids to fill in the remaining ingredients. “A green shirt could be lettuce, red pants are ketchup, an orange shirt is cheese, and don’t forget green underwear for a pickle!” says Donald Drawbertson, a Los Angeles dad whose cheeky paintings can be found on Insta @drawbertson.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2020 issue as “Get Them to Love Learning Again.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here.